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BWW Review: ROMAN TRAGEDIES, Barbican Theatre

I guess the equivalent of television's Holy Grail - "appointment to watch" series - is event theatre, the shows that attract adjectives like "unmissable" and "once in a generation". So I, and a few hundred more lucky souls, can count ourselves fortunate that Dutch company Toneelgroep have returned to The Barbican, some eight years on, to stage their extraordinary Roman Tragedies as part of their season at the venue. Because this is Event Theatre with a capital E!

If nearly six hours of subtitled Shakespeare sounds a tough call, don't you believe it. The time hurtles by in a whirl of political machinations, crashing music, video feeds and up close and personal acting. And, if you feel a little peckish, roll up on stage where two bars serve some excellent food and decent wine and beers. "Immersive" theatre can be a little tricksy, but not this time - I retreated early to my seat, as I didn't fancy getting entangled with the plotters at The Capitol, but many audience members were on stage for four hours or more as the space became an agora. Oh yes - you can take photos and Tweet to your heart's content.

Director, Ivo Van Hove, has pared back Shakespeare's plays, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra to the the politicians talking politics. The hoi polloi are, literally, ourselves, trusted to find our own voices in response to events unfolding, a news ticker keeping us up to date with wars, percussionists blasting us with the Sturm und Drang of battle.

Performed in modern dress, modern technology is used to bring us news conferences, television interviews and create a recognisable state machinery under fierce pressure. Tom Kleijn's translation brings Shakespeare's language into the 21st century, but its potency is retained - this production is about as accessible as Shakespeare gets, but all the searing insight into the human condition comes through, loud and clear.

Gijs Scholten van Aschat's Coriolanus (egged on by Frieda Pittoors in tremendously aggressive form as his mother) is cajoled into accepting the position of Consul, having brought glory to the Republic on the battlefield. But he rails against the Tribunes, the representatives of the people, pouring scorn on their capacity to govern, believing that the Patricians alone can steer the state. He pays the ultimate price after forming a treacherous military alliance with his erstwhile enemy, the Volsci, seeking to destroy Rome in order to save it.

Moving forward instantly (and chronologically) Julius Caesar's unconvincing denial of the crown (ie individual control of the Republic), provokes the famous murder on the Ides of March. After a splendidly staged scene in which Caesar's and Brutus's wives seek to dissuade them of their fates simultaneously, we're catapulted into the funeral orations.

After Brutus's high-minded appeal to political imperatives, Hans Kesting slumps down to sit on the floor, an apparently broken man, to deliver an electrifying "Friends, Romans, Countrymen..." At its conclusion, all around me people let out a breath, having been unable to breathe with the tension of it all. And, after a short set change, we next see Mark Antony cynically trading lives as he, Octavius and Lepidus form their ill-fated, but militarily successful Triumvirate. Beware those who decry ambition, for they may have plenty of their own.

Kesting, a big brooding hulk of a man who has more than a touch of peak Oliver Reed about his charismatic, ambivalent, menacing sexuality, has run to fat in Egypt in the final play, transfixed by his ageing sexpot Queen, Chris Nietvelt's cougarish Cleopatra. Wearied by wine (and, if not women, then this one woman whose appetites might tire any man) he wastes strategic advantage when Maria Krookman's sharp-suited CEO-like Octavius brings war on land and sea. Defeated, the lovers go their deaths, but the Republic lives on, thriving under Octavius's corporate planning approach, all sharp suits and SPADs.

If the bravura staging isn't reason enough to beg, steal or borrow a ticket, the plays' relevance to the extraordinary politics of the last two years screams from the stage. The tension between political elites and the voices of the people, the vaulting ambition of leaders and the hubris so caused and the fragility of overseas alliances - and the perception thereof - well, Shakespeare saw it all and this production, literally, brings it to us.

Is 334 minutes too much? I'd watch the whole thing again tonight if I had the chance.

Roman Tragedies continues at the Barbican Theatre until 19 March.

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